By Colleen Ladd, University of Central Florida
In the earlier years of my life, I was a sister of one and a daughter of two. I was a puzzle with a perfect fit. I was a happy little girl. I don’t recall much of it, but of course there are the memories that I will never let go. It’s incredible how your mind can retain so much information. I also find it ironic that your mind stores such random memories from childhood moments. When I think of them, they all seem to fly at me in an unorganized mess. Questions like “Which one came first? What day was it? How old was I?” are included in that mess, as if it were attached to each memory to remind me that the specifics were permanently out of focus. Sometimes I wish that when I would reminisce on those memories, they would come to me in a perfect cadence. I would be able to tell you when I fell off that jungle gym for the first time; it was on a Saturday and I happened to be three.
The memories that I remember involve a few Halloweens, my favorite song and movie as a little girl, and some birthday parties. For one Halloween I was a fairy and my brother, a vampire with a drawn-on widow’s peak. My dad would tell my brother and I scary stories of how the boogie man came out at night, but not to worry because he would never let us get eaten. My secret: I worried. A lot. At the time, the song that I most adored was “My Girl” by The Temptations. Bedtime had become my most looked-forward-to part of the day because my tired, miniature body would be serenaded to the lyrics, “I’ve got sunshine, on a cloudy day…” by my father. Of course, along with the song, my most cherished movie was My Girl, which I think should be every little girl’s favorite film. I recall the times when McDonald’s was the place to have your birthday party and how it translated into the roller rink, the bowling alley, and the local fun spot of go-carts and putt-putt golf. I remember eating so much ice cream until I wanted to puke, running until I felt that my little legs would fall off, and swinging so high until I thought that I would touch the tip of the clouds with my brand-new Sketchers shoes.
But there will always be that memory that I remember most – that one date, February 12, 1996 – the day my father, Michael Ladd, died of bone cancer. I was five at the time and truly had no idea what to think of it. The hospital counselor had me draw a picture for some kind of coping procedure. I chose to draw one of my dad up in heaven with God and his son Jesus Christ, which my mother still possesses today. I remember glancing around at my family wondering why everyone was crying. I especially remember looking at my grandma. She looked at me with her melancholic eyes and her garish face, and I knew he wasn’t coming back.
All in a minute’s time I went from daughter of two to a daughter of one, a puzzle perfectly fit to a puzzle missing the middle piece, a happy little girl to a confused being. Having such a dramatic event occur in my life at the age of five, I didn’t come to realize the things I would be missing in my life until they would take place. A feeling of nostalgia overtook me whenever I thought of my dad, but I didn’t cry. Until one day, when my family and I were visiting his burial spot, it hit me with a virulent shock. I had lost someone I would soon forget. Not as a person but I would soon come to forget his voice, his smile and how much he loved me. I was too young to even comprehend such a four letter word, let alone measure it. I know deep down inside, he loved me with a compassionate heart. What I don’t know is how it felt.
I used to get angry sometimes knowing that I remember more about something so simple as a birthday party; how it was decorated, what I wore, who attended, the gifts I received, instead of what really mattered to me like what happened when I went to the beach that one day with my dad. I had come to find that being angry will never change anything. I had come to be a person that had grown up a lot faster than her peers. I had become the person that I am today, yesterday, and the years before. I believe that when something life-changing happens to someone, that person becomes one person forever. The day I grew up was the day I cried. The day I cried and realized my dad was gone. I live my life as an opportunist. I know that life is something worth living and that it’s up to that one person to put its worth to work. I live my life like my dad lived his.
I was told that my dad was the rebel of the five brothers and sisters he grew up with, where they were thought to be more urbane. He made every decision knowing that there was a risk and that life was too short to let it hold you back. I’ve learned flippant is better than factual, humble reins over haughty, and cheery overcompensates cynical. I may have lost my dad, and someone to give me away at my wedding, but I will hold that memory of knowing how my dad would handle it. So when I am walking down that aisle, and my older brother gives me away to the second best man in my life, I’ll know that I did it for my dad, and that is the best memory that I will make ‘in memory.’